| Sarkozy and Royal after casting their votes. (AP)
Paris, May 6 (Reuters): Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy won France’s presidential election today, beating his Socialist rival Segolene Royal by a comfortable margin and extending the right’s 12-year grip on power.
Within minutes of polls closing, Royal conceded defeat in a speech to party faithful in the heart of Paris.
“Universal suffrage has spoken. I wish the next President of the Republic the best in accomplishing his mission in the service of all the French people,” she said.
Forecasts by four pollsters showed Sarkozy, 52, a hardline former interior minister, won around 53 per cent of the vote in the second-round ballot and will succeed fellow conservative Jacques Chirac, who was President for 12 years.
Turnout was some 85 per cent, the highest since 1981.
Sarkozy’s face flashed up on television screens after polling stations closed at 8 pm (1800 GMT), signalling his victory and setting off jubilant scenes among supporters gathered in central Paris.
A swarm of cameramen on motorbikes followed his car as he swept through the city at twilight to talk to his supporters.
Across the French capital at Socialist headquarters, there was gloom after the party crashed to its third consecutive presidential election defeat. Party heavyweights immediately called for reform to make itself more appealing to voters.
Although opinion polls regularly suggested voters preferred Royal, who was seeking to become France’s first woman head of state, they saw the uncompromising Sarkozy as a more competent leader with a more convincing economic programme.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, presented himself as the “candidate of work”, promising to loosen the 35-hour work week by offering tax breaks on overtime and to trim fat from the public service, cut taxes and wage war on unemployment.
He is expected to take office on May 16 or 17, and will be the first French President to be born after World War II.
He will then name a new government and immediately launch into campaigning for June’s parliamentary election, where he will seek a clear majority to implement his reform plans.
The President is elected for five years, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, nominates the Prime Minister, has the right to dissolve the National Assembly and is responsible for foreign and defence policies.
Royal started the year as favourite, but a string of gaffes over foreign policy raised doubts over her competency. Deep ideological divisions in her own camp meant she could never enjoy unified support from the Socialists.
“We need to renew ourselves. It is the condition for regaining hope and I am available for that,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist former finance minister, presenting himself as a future leader for the battered party.
The Socialists portrayed Sarkozy as a danger for France, saying he was authoritarian and likely to exacerbate tensions in the poor, multi-racial suburbs that ring many French cities.
They also accused him of fuelling 2005 suburb riots by promising to rid neighbourhoods of what he said were the “scum” responsible for the troubles. Thousands of extra police have been drafted in to patrol sensitive suburbs today.
But by backing Sarkozy, voters showed they wanted a strong leader to resolve France’s many problems, including high unemployment of at least 8.3 per cent, falling living standards, job insecurity and declining industrial might.
He has promised a clean break with the policies of Chirac, once his political mentor, and says he will curb the powers of the unions and toughen sentencing for criminals.
Former labour minister Francois Fillon is widely expected to become Prime Minister.